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  Posted on: Tuesday, February 9, 2010
Bob Ryland – The first black professional tennis player and Arthur Ashe’s hero

By Ed Tseng
Pro of the Year USTA/NJD 2005
Author of "Game. Set. Life. - Peak Performance for Sports and Life"

Bob Ryland"I only want to be good enough to be able to beat Bob Ryland."
-ARTHUR ASHE, age 14

Bob Ryland broke the color barrier in 1959, by becoming the first black professional tennis player.

I met Bob Ryland back in 2008 at the Harlem Armory in New York City. It was a benefit for the Harlem Tennis Program, featuring James Blake and Justin Gimelstob, as they ran through some drills for the kids and played an exhibition with some special guests. Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins was also in attendance. Bob and I hit it off and became good friends instantly. Since then, we have given lectures together at organizations such as the Harlem Armory, Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education, USTA Tennis Teachers Conference and the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

We have also had many in-depth conversations on tennis and life, in person and over the telephone. During our conversations, Bob told me about his life, from the days of segregation and sitting at the back of the bus, to teaching the Williams sisters, Barbra Streisand and travelling the world as Bill Cosby's personal tennis coach.

Bob Ryland is in the Black Hall of Fame and still plays tennis every day in Central Park. In fact, in 2006, he won the USTA 85 Public Parks Championships.

I also asked Bob what he thought it took to reach peak performance. Here is his Top Five List:


I knew that Bob worked with Venus and Serena Williams when they were younger, so the first question I ever asked him was, "Were Venus and Serena more talented than everyone else, or did they just work harder?"

Ryland said, "They just worked harder. Their practice sessions were from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m."

Bob and I agreed that hard work is critical. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard.


When Bob was a child, he used to sleep with his wooden tennis racquet. When you enjoy the process, it's not like work. When Tiger Woods was younger, his father used to make all of his practice sessions into fun games. Do people sing to get to the end of the song? No, they sing because they enjoy singing. Tennis is the same way.


Before Rosa Parks, there was Bob Ryland. I recall Bob telling me about how when he was a child in Alabama he used to leave his house to walk to school and he would see black people "strung up" on trees. He also witnessed relatives being dragged to death behind horse and buggy. This was 1923.

Bob Ryland, as well as all blacks in those days, had to use different drinking fountains and restrooms than the white folks. In movie theaters, blacks had to sit up in the "coop."

If Ryland could live through this hell and still be one of the most optimistic individuals I know, imagine what we can do?


"Kids today don't want to listen," says Ryland, slightly irritated. "You need to listen to your coaches and work hard." We have so much in this country and sometimes we take it all for granted. It doesn't matter if you're a student, teacher, CEO or musician, you need to listen and learn from others.

"Arthur Ashe was a good listener. I remember once giving him some tips on his backhand and he immediately started practicing it," Ryland said.

We are all students and we are all teachers. We can learn and we can contribute. With this mindset, the sky is the limit.


When I asked how he lived through segregation, Bob said that "it was what it was and you couldn't do anything about it." If you can't do anything about it, why worry about it?

Bob told me about when he was playing college tennis and the black tennis players had to stay on the bus and the white boys went into the restaurants and got them food so they could eat on the bus. They even had to stay on the bus until dark so they could sneak into the hotel.

Staying positive wasn't easy for Ryland, but he did it. It was a choice for him back then, as it is for us today, in our lives.

Bob Ryland is not only a good friend of mine, but he is also one of my heroes. A hero because at 89 years young, he still plays tennis every day in Central Park and you will always find him smiling. Perhaps he will be smiling because he is thinking back to the days of Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson, but perhaps he will be smiling because he realizes that every day on this earth is a gift.

In tennis and life, we cannot control what happens to us. We can only control how we react to those situations.

Bob Ryland has helped pave the way for blacks and black athletes, but he has also been an inspiration to all of us. I know he has to me.

Ed Tseng is the founder of the Tseng Performance Academy in Princeton, N.J. He was named Pro of the Year USTA/NJD 2005, is an internationally recognized motivational speaker and the author of "Game. Set. Life. - Peak Performance for Sports and Life" which has been on Amazon's Top 10 in Sports Psychology and featured at the US Open. Tseng has delivered lectures to organizations such as the USTA Tennis Teachers Conference, USPTA, Special Olympics, Mercer County Youth Detention Center, Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce, Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis and Education, Harlem Tennis Program, and numerous schools and sports teams. Visit his daily mental toughness blog:

Recent articles:
2/16/10   Arthur Ashe: Tennis legend, all-around inspiration
2/9/10   Bob Ryland – The first black professional tennis player and Arthur Ashe’s hero
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